As companies navigate the post-COVID-19 business landscape, innovation will be pivotal to recovery and growth.
When management consulting firm McKinsey and Company surveyed over 200 organisations last year, more than 90 per cent said that they expect the pandemic to fundamentally change the way they do business, and almost as many believed that it will have a lasting impact on customers’ wants and needs.
By studying past crises, the firm also found that companies that invest in innovation during a crisis are likely to reap benefits in the difficult period and for years thereafter.
Those that did so in the 2007-2009 Great Recession outperformed peers in normalised market capitalisation by 10 per cent during the recession, and up to 30 per cent for several years afterwards.
To maximise their innovation capability, firms must look externally, to keep abreast of trends, identify useful emerging technologies and pinpoint opportunities for partnerships.
Taking the initiative in technology scouting
Many forward-looking companies have formed technology scouting teams to carry out these tasks. Some of the consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble’s most successful products have been based on external technologies, including its Olay Regenerist line of anti-ageing cream.
By keeping an eye on nascent technologies and assessing how these could be used to enhance existing products or create new ones, companies can ensure that they continue to innovate and rise above their competitors.
Technology scouts can attend trade conferences to track trends, technology shifts and start-ups that could revolutionise their industry. Technology pitching sessions organised by the public sector and firms are another avenue.
Many universities and research institutes have technology transfer offices to raise awareness of their research and inventions that could be useful for industry. For instance, Nanyang Technological University’s innovation and enterprise company called NTUitive manages the university’s intellectual property and facilitates the commercialisation of research.
IPI, an innovation catalyst that links Singapore-based firms to technology solution providers, also assists in technology searches and introductions to companies.
It has a global network of solution providers, a panel of vetted technical experts who can advise firms, an Innovation Advisors Programme that offers access to industry veterans, and technology and innovation managers who are well-versed in technology commercialisation.
Some businesses, especially larger corporations, may tap on technology scouting software that is available on the market to automate some of the work. Such software aggregates and sifts through data from online sources to highlight studies, patents and technologies that could be useful to the firm, thereby offering some level of efficiency.
However, the eventual assessment of the relevance of the technology and matching of the solver to the seeker of technology still requires a human to draw insights from the data collated as well as to facilitate and navigate the nuances and intricacies of technology commercialisation.
The importance of internal connections
It is not enough, however, to devote resources to search for useful ideas, technologies and partnerships outside of the firm. Companies must also ensure that technology scouts’ findings are disseminated within the firm, to both management and operation-level staff, so that all can participate in the innovation process.
Researchers have found that it takes significant time to develop fruitful external partnerships, so those doing the outreach may not have the capacity to analyse how new technologies and ideas could be used in unexpected and productive ways in the firm.
Pairing technology scouts with more internally-focused colleagues would enable the latter to widen the possibilities for application and drive their exploration.
Internal connections can also help to focus on external searches. At Kellogg’s, the packaged foods conglomerate, the marketing department prepares “opportunity briefs” for scouts who work in research and development.
These briefs outline problems that, if solved, could lead to lucrative commercial opportunities for the company.
The power of partnerships
On the other side of the equation, companies with innovative technologies can also rely on trade conferences, pitching sessions, technology intermediaries and other forums to identify potential adoptees.
TechInnovation, IPI’s annual flagship technology brokerage event, gathers Singapore and international technology seekers and providers to encourage business and technology collaborations.
Companies can also post write-ups of their technologies on IPI’s Innovation Marketplace to leverage its global network to find prospective partners. Tech Alert, IPI’s weekly e-newsletter which has over 24,000 subscribers, also features new technologies.
Many enterprises have found success through partnerships, in different ways.
After IPI matched health and wellness firm OSIM International with NeuroSky, an American biometric business, the two organisations co-developed a stress-sensing feature that is now part of the uDream, OSIM’s pioneering massage chair that measures users’ stress and fatigue levels to deliver customised massages.
When IPI connected ERS Industries, which manufactures electronic equipment racks for use in data centres, with a thermal management expert from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, on the other hand, the latter not only upgraded the racks’ design to boost cooling but also improved the firm’s in-house engineering capabilities and put in place processes to guide it in managing and protecting its intellectual property.
For LeanCost International, a startup that had developed a manufacturing data analytics algorithm to empower firms to accurately report product costs and pinpoint inefficiencies in processes, allying with another firm was essential.
For the algorithm to be commercially viable, it needed to be combined with an enterprise resource planning system, which integrates corporate operations such as sales and processes on a single platform, or a manufacturing execution system (MES), which provides information on how to optimise production output.
With IPI’s assistance, LeanCost International found SMT Technology, a precision engineering solutions provider. By integrating LeanCost International’s algorithm into SMT Technology’s Smartline software, which has MES functions, the two firms created SmartCost, a first-of-its-kind system for real-time monitoring of costs in manufacturing processes.
These examples are just a fraction of the range of possibilities for firms. By looking externally and finding opportunities for innovative collaboration and co-creation efforts with an open mindset, companies can grow beyond their boundaries, and stand themselves in better stead for the future.
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